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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 5, 2010

Charter school has ideas to chew on


By David Shapiro

After my item last week poking fun at a bill in the Legislature to ban candy sales at public schools, I got an e-mail from my old friend, Patti Cook on the Big Island, telling me about an innovation at Waimea Middle School that actually encourages students to chew gum in school.

A teacher at the school, which became the state's first public conversion charter school in 2003, found a Los Angeles Times story about research at Baylor suggesting that students who were allowed to chew gum while taking standardized math tests scored 3 percent better.

So administrators and teachers agreed to offer students chewing gum sugarless peppermint, to be precise during the current Hawai'i State Assessment test.

Nobody is sure how it works, but research suggests that chewing increases blood flow to the brain and peppermint may enhance energy, brighten mood, help breathing and improve mental clarity and memory, said principal John Colson.

So, the school decided, why not give it a try? The Legislature will be happy to know that once the testing is over, the school's "no gum on campus" policy kicks back in.

Colson said it's a small example of the way public charter schools are able to depart from centralized Department of Education policies when it makes sense.

"These are the kinds of decisions local schools can and should make to do what's best for students," he said.

On a more substantial matter, Waimea Middle School and several other charter schools have been able to work out agreements with their teachers to avoid the furlough Fridays that public schools are suffering.

Hawai'i's 31 charter schools are a mixed bag in terms of purpose, performance and stability, but the best of them are fulfilling their mission of fostering experimentation, bringing decision-making to the school level and modeling innovations that can extend into the broader public school system.

This despite less funding per student than the regular public schools, makeshift facilities, imperfect enabling legislation and endless tension between the schools, the state charter schools office, the DOE, the Board of Education, the Legislature and unions representing teachers and administrative staff.

State support for charter schools is a key factor in the competition for federal Race to the Top funding, for which Hawai'i failed to qualify in the first round.

It would be worth our while to finally come together behind our charter schools and start treating them as opportunities to improve public education in Hawai'i rather than threats to a status quo that needs shaking up.